It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Hollywood executive in possession of market research has no idea what he is doing. Think of him as an ape flinging darts at a blow up doll. Whether or not he hits is completely incidental. He may feel a little better in himself and all apekind if he manages it, but that’s not because he’s great at darts. Apes are not good at darts.
Board executives are good with money. That’s why they’re there. But they are not creative people, which is why Hollywood in general is such a paradoxical place. If you care about stagnation in the film industry, look to the board rooms and the hotel lobbies. I’m not saying anything new here – creative industries the world over are, and always have been, full of the drabbest, least imaginative people. It’s just seems to me that, recently, the industry’s collective lack of imagination has resulted in something kind of peculiar, exemplified, weirdly enough, by the release of Deadpool 2.
The rule generally stands that if you see something on Television, it isn’t cool anymore. I know that comes across as almost hipster-ish, but there is a truth to it, buried underneath all the wimpish superiority. Industry mechanisms often work to dial back all the qualities that made originally more underground works exciting. Think of Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm, or The Golden Compass, or Metallica’s St. Anger. To say that everything propped up by a major studio or label is inherently less creative than something released independently is clearly wrong-headed, and I don’t want to suggest that, but there is a process, a mechanism, present in big studios that is perhaps more aware of its bottom line, of the immense amount of money and capital involved. This has consequences, and one of these consequences is that accessibility is placed above artistic freedom. I don’t think this can be ignored, as awkward as it is to say.
The strangest thing about Deadpool 2 is that it exists at all. An R-rated, critically praised superhero movie with a big budget, its release can only be pinpointed to a bit of marketing espionage perpetrated by its star, Ryan Reynolds, his having released test footage from the first film without Fox’s permission. The small risk Deadpool was paid off in $731 million worth of gross revenue against a budget of $58 million – the highest gross for an R rated film, ever. Without total assurance from audiences, 20th Century Fox would have been unwilling to take that risk. That’s one thing.
On the one hand, it’s a self-referential, fourth-wall breaking comedy, bathed in just about as much postmodern irony as you could find in a one-thousand page Thomas Pynchon novel. On the other, it’s the sequel to a highly anticipated superhero film, a spin-off from a wider series of superhero movies, all of which have made over $100 million at the global box office. Taking the two things together feels weird, dizzying, like watching a millionaire step out of a limo wearing tracksuit bottoms, or smoking weed with a priest. While Deadpool 2 stands proudly representing the culture, it wears counterculture’s skin, its shoulders gleaming from the rush of a recent scalping.
This brings up an interesting question about satire in general. Satire is, or was, the mainstay of outsiders – people who sat alone in rooms, hunched over, writing obscene pamphlets or obscenely long novels. Satire didn’t have investors. No board meetings were set up to discuss how best to satirise something. Satire’s joking around was very much about telling truth to power, as fun and subversive as it was; with its embrace by the film industry, its losing that political bite, the cultural relevance it once had.
Again, the rule generally stands that if you see something on Television, it isn’t cool anymore. Irony, at this point, is most certainly not as fresh as it once was. Scratch a film as cancerous as The Emoji Movie, and you’ll find a clear self-aware subtext, as lost as that subtext gets underneath all the thinly veiled in-movie advertisements. The Coca-Cola Company spent 2015 promoting its drink Oasis with posters that read ‘It’s Summer. You’re Thirsty. We’ve Got Sales Targets’ and ‘Please Don’t Stand In Front Of This Poster. It Cost A Lot Of Money.’ A sharp contrast to fifty years ago, it is the sad fact that satire, irony and self-awareness has become the zeitgeist, a thing that was once a reaction to modern ethical corruption and ennui having been absorbed by the corporate mainstream – in a sense, gentrified. As said before, film executives don’t care about speaking truth to power or the cultural implications of what they say and do – the bottom line is what concerns them. If they release a satirical product, emphasis must be placed on the ‘product.’ There’s no substance or weight to that satire. It doesn’t come from a guttural place. It is, in every sense of the word, hollow.
Deadpool 2 is a fun movie. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I laughed at its fourth wall breaks and jabs at the Green Lantern movie as much as the next guy. But the problem still remains: behind all the jokes and the jiving around sits a board room full of crinkly white men trying to take advantage of the latest trends. Deadpool 2 is satirical, but it is not a satire in the usual sense, for as much as we mean satire as a deliberate subversion of the influential and powerful. The thing that makes me a little unsettled now is where we go culturally from here. Artists and writers from the 90s onwards have been decrying the death of postmodernism and the rise of corporatized satire, but nothing concrete, at least as it seems to me, has come about in the interim to fill that void. The fear is that in an age where companies and conglomerates have found ample ways to make our lives more convenient, and thus increase our dependence upon the use of their products, we are entering an odd period of cultural homogeneity, where important artistic movements are a thing of the distant past. It’s a weird place to be in, feeling like a sort of cultural PTSD, and I personally don’t know how I’m going to deal with it.